Photo: An unidentified child trying to skip the border fence into South Africa. Credit: Aljazeera - Photo: 2017

On the Trail of Child Trafficking in Zimbabwe

By Jeffrey Moyo

BEITBRIDGE, Zimbabwe (IDN) – Child trafficking is alive and thriving on Zimbabwe’s southern border. Despite Zimbabwe winning a few “Brownie points” with the U.S. government for rescuing more than 100 female Zimbabwean trafficking victims from Kuwait recently, police at Beitbridge – a border town between Zimbabwe and South Africa – say they arrest between16 and 20 people every day implicated in illegally “transporting” unaccompanied children through Zimbabwe’s border with South Africa.

The Zimbabwe Republic Police (or ZRP) Officer Commanding Beitbridge District, Chief Superintendent, Francis Phiri, said the children recovered from these arrests are handed over to the government’s social welfare department to have them returned to their homes in Zimbabwe.

According to the civic organization, Zimbabwe-South Africa Cross-Border Coordination Committee for Unaccompanied and Separated Migrant Children, in 2017 alone, a total of 150 children had been intercepted while being smuggled into either South Africa or Zimbabwe.

The organization works with government agencies to ensure that under-age children recovered from arrested smugglers are sent back to their homes in Zimbabwe.

But the smugglers themselves claim they are providing a much-needed service for the thousands of Zimbabweans living and working illegally in South Africa by re-uniting them with the children they left behind.

They insist they deliver the children in their charge safely to their parents who collect them in Johannesburg or are dropped off “en route” to the “City of Gold”.

But as this reporter discovered, it’s a risky and dangerous journey – and does not always have a happy ending.

One night in August this year, this reporter, masquerading as an illegal border-jumper, mingled with a group of people along Main Street in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s southern capital. There 45 children, in age between two and nine years, were being handed over to “cross-border passenger transporters” – as the smugglers like to call themselves – by the children’s Zimbabwe-based guardians and relatives, ostensibly to be reunited with their parents “down South”.

Among them was an excited four-year-old Thembi Nyathi, who was looking forward to the prospect of being reunited with her mother, who herself, had illegally “jumped” the border three years earlier in a desperate search to find work to support her family.

Several of the adults present confirmed that all the children in their custody were on their way to South Africa to be reunited with their parents. But they confessed that none of them had any valid travel documents.

The driver of a 40-seater mini-bus registered in South Africa, was packing children into the vehicle under cover of darkness. He told IDN his destination was Beitbridge. Once there, the minors would be handed over to another team of smugglers responsible for getting them to an illegal border-crossing point about 25 kilometers southeast of the busy border post on the banks of the Limpopo River.

At this time of the year, the water levels of the Limpopo are so low that the river can be forded on foot relatively smoothly, though crocodiles are an ever-present threat. The smugglers also have to be wary of police and army border patrols on both sides of the river.

The Zimbabwe smugglers are charged with getting the children across the river where they are handed over to South African smugglers, who get them through the border security fence to the waiting transport in South Africa.

To get the children across the river, the smugglers hire local gangs who know the river well to carry the minors to the other side. But during the rainy season, it is a different story, and boats have to be used to get the toddlers – and any adult cross-border jumpers – across the swollen Limpopo.

Further investigations on both sides of the Beitbridge border revealed that many other child smugglers simply prefer to risk the more direct route of going through the official border post and bribing immigration officials on both sides of the national frontier to allow them through with their child charges without question.

But paying off suspicious police and immigration officials from both countries incurs increased costs.

Some child smugglers even offered the contact details of the officials with whom they allegedly work to facilitate the illegal passage of unaccompanied minors out of Zimbabwe. But when contacted by this reporter, the officials denied any knowledge of the child smuggling racket.

According to the people smugglers, this reporter spoke to, prices soar by as much as 100 percent, during the festive season when many people are crisscrossing the SA-Zimbabwe border for the holidays or shopping.

Several child smugglers in Beitbridge and Bulawayo explained that the children’s parents pay the “transporters” from the South African side to bring their children to them. These smugglers, in turn, tell the parents who to contact in Zimbabwe to arrange where and when to deliver their children to pick-up points in Zimbabwe’s main cities, like the midnight Main Street rendezvous in Bulawayo.

Inquiries with various illegal “cross-border passenger transporters” revealed that for all people smuggled through Zimbabwe’s border with South African, the “off-season” charge is between Rand 600 and Rand 800 (some US$42 and US$56) per person, whether a child or an adult.

Richard Gudhuza, a cross-border people smuggler, who operates out of Harare’s busy Road Port bus terminus, said: “If you ask parents how much they pay us for transporting their children from Zimbabwe, it is common to hear them complain that they are forking out a lot of money for the service. But this is untrue.”

The smugglers specializing in trafficking children to and from South Africa insist they operate as well organized teams who provide their services with precision and efficiency – as long as they are fully paid.

One child smuggler, who only identified himself as Chuma for security reasons, explained: “We keep a register of the children we move every day. When we drop off a child, we tick a list in our register to show that the child has disembarked and we also make whoever is collecting the child sign that he or she has received the child. There is nothing evil in what we do.”

There are, of course, no statistics about the numbers of children smuggled through Zimbabwe’s porous borders. And, according to human rights defenders based in Beitbridge, nobody has yet been able to prove whether or not child smugglers are indeed ferrying children to their parents or guardians.

Catherine Mkwapati, head of the human rights civic organization, Youth Dialogue Action Network, was skeptical about the child smugglers: “You just see children being handed over to these cross-border transporters, but you don’t really know who is handing them to whom, or from who and why. It is therefore hard to conclude that the children are being sent away to reunite with their parents or guardians. What if they are being sold into slavery?”

As if to corroborate Mkwapati’s comments, Evelyn Ndou, a Beitbridge-based single mother of three, had her own grim story to tell.

“In 2007 during my stay in Johannesburg, my first-born child, who was aged nine at that time, went missing through the same method used by these child smugglers who are still on the prowl here in Zimbabwe. I never gave anybody my details as to where to pick up my child, but these same child smugglers came right here to my home in Beitbridge and claimed that I had paid them to fetch my daughter and bring her to me. Since then, I have not seen my girl for over 10 years now,” a distressed Ndou told IDN.

Indeed, the police in Beitbridge say that in the past two years, 16 children have been reported missing.

“After failing to receive their children from smugglers whom they pay to transport their children, we often receive reports from parents who claim their children were stolen from the home while they (the parents) were in South Africa,” says Chief Superintendent Phiri,

“As police, we are yet to fully understand some of these complicated cases, or what would have happened leading to children disappearing while in the hands of smugglers,” he adds. “Do they die in the Limpopo river? Or do they get killed by smugglers?”

Some parents who hand over their children into the care of the smugglers expressed trust in their illegal services.

For example, Letwin Gwebi, a Zimbabwean single parent based in Johannesburg, told IDN: “Each school holiday, I make sure I pay the cross-border transporters to bring my two children from Zimbabwe for the holidays with me here, and I’m now not afraid to entrust my children into the care of these people.”

Without a passport herself or even a national ID card, or a birth certificate, Gwebi said she has no way of getting her children passports.

She illegally skipped the border to South Africa years ago and for her, “getting passports for my children means I have to start making trips to get my own documents first, which won’t be easy.”

Letwin, a domestic worker in Egoli, says that getting her children back to Zimbabwe in time for school is easy and not so expensive. She simply puts them on a bus and sends them home with enough money to pay the official penalty charged by the Zimbabwean border authorities.

According to Zimbabwe’s Immigration Department, Zimbabweans travelling from any neighbouring country without valid travel documents must pay the equivalent of R100 on the Zimbabwean side of the border in order to be given a gate pass by customs officials.

As for little Thembi Nyathi, her journey across the Limpopo does not have a happy ending.

According to Deliwe Ngulube, the only illegal adult migrant who travelled with the under-age children, when the mini-bus carrying Thembi reached Polokwane city in South Africa’s Limpopo Province, where she was due to be reunited with her parents, the transporter claimed that there was no one waiting for the girl at the agreed on collection point. He also claimed that her parents’ phone numbers were unreachable.

The driver, a man in his 40s, named Dennis Nyathi, opted to proceed to Johannesburg with the girl in the company of the other children. On being contacted a month later by this reporter, Nyathi claimed to have taken Thembi back to Bulawayo to her guardians’ home after he failed to find the child’s parents in South Africa. But he would not reveal the address for us to corroborate his story.

Today, Thembi’s fate, like so many other children undertaking the perilous journey to – and from – South Africa, remains a dark mystery. [IDN-InDepthNews – 3 November 2017]

Photo: An unidentified child trying to skip the border fence into South Africa. Credit: Aljazeera

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate –

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